Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Mother Courage and Her Children

Bertolt Brecht, in a translation by Tony Kushner
RNT Olivier
(2009)

Production photo

With a creative team led by Bertolt Brecht, Tony Kushner, Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw, it is surprising that this highly ambitious new version of Mother Courage and her Children should have had such a rocky journey to its public unveiling.

Indeed, the opening night was delayed by a week and a half as the production failed to come together by its deadline and this led to much negative rumour-mongering.

In fact, although it is a little rough around the edges, this updated vision of an anti-war classic is absolutely engrossing and ends with an unforgettable Brechtian image that is almost worth the price of a ticket alone. It has to be said, that thanks to Travelex sponsorship, that price need only be £10.

From the opening moments, it is obvious that this is no standard rehashing of the old classic. Almost immediately, Fiona Shaw delightedly transforms herself into a PJ Harvey-type rock chick to belt out an opening number. She does so accompanied by a high-quality six piece band led by Duke Special, a rather grungy looking singer-pianist with an attractive voice and a good line in post-Weill music making, combining ballads with much harder edged songs but always ensuring that the lyrics are audible.

The band and cast often share the Olivier's large playing area, embellished with scene-setting messages on gigantic white sheets that come down from the flies and are read out by veteran American novelist Gore Vidal, who made the trip across the Atlantic to appear in person at the opening.

The story will probably be familiar. Fiona Shaw's feisty Mother Courage has brought up three children by different fathers all alone and makes money from selling anything and everything off the back of a cart.

The woman who feeds off war like a vulture can hardly contain her delight as the 30 Years' War of the mid-17th century provides her own personal bull market.

If the lady has a problem, it is in balancing her economic desires with the need to maintain and protect her grown-up family. One son, Eilif played by Clifford Samuel, wishes to be a war hero and soon slips away. The other, Harry Melling's Swiss Cheese, is simple, while their half sister Kattrin, powerfully portrayed by Sophie Stone, is mute.

For 3¼ hours, the slowly diminishing family unit tours around war-torn Europe picking up stragglers such as a general's Cook, Yvette a perky prostitute and a confused Chaplain respectively played by Martin Marquez, a vibrant Charlotte Randle and Stephen Kennedy. Mention must also be made of a superb comic cameo from Louis McKenzie as The Young Soldier, a smouldering, coltish man with chips on both shoulders.

As time moves on the war, brought to deafening and at times terrifying life on the stage, takes its toll with first one son and then the other disappearing so that Courage is left alone with Kattrin, who heroically meets her death saving a whole town from slaughter.

It is clear that there have been problems in bringing Deborah Warner's racy new 21st-century version, using an uncompromising new translation by Tony Kushner, to the stage. The fifth of the twelve scenes has disappeared completely in an effort to keep the playing time down and others have been reduced so that the last six scenes last little more than half as long as the five before the interval. This affects the rhythm and pacing, making the final sections seem rushed.

Even so, with really excellent music, strong acting all round and a virtuoso performance from Fiona Shaw especially in times of trouble this is a great night out.

The star ended a long evening close to physical collapse having sung, rushed around, acted her socks off and ended the play pulling the metaphorically laden but also physically heavy cart in a final gesture of defiance.

There may not be too many who would say this, but your critic would happily have sat through a rather fuller version, say four hours, so enjoyable was the shortened offering on show.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher